Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve Sermon: "In the City of David"

(A programming note: I will be away on vacation for the rest of the calendar year, so look for new entries here starting just after the New Year!  I wish you and yours a merry and safe Christmas!  -E.A.)
Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” 15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. (CEB)

"In the City of David"

We had warned the teenagers whom we had chaperoned on a mission trip across the United States-Mexico border to Tijuana.  We instructed them that when we reached the border crossing, they were to give their passports to the customs officer, to take off their hats and sunglasses, to sit absolutely still, and to not speak unless spoken to.  Over-protective of us?  Perhaps a bit.

But then, amidst the long line of cars, vans, and trucks waiting to cross over the border, we saw several street vendors wending their way through the automobiles, selling churros—those finger-shaped sticks of dough rolled in cinnamon sugar.

We bought six bags.  Because, you know, what better strategy for a road trip with a van full of teenagers than to imbibe everybody with massive amounts of sugar?

But that also broke any tension, any inner fear, however tiny, that we would not cross the border.  And, at the end of the mission trip, we heard the same words from the American customs agent that you hear whenever you return to the States—“Welcome home.”

There probably was nobody there to say that to Mary and Joseph.  Not the least of which was that it wasn’t their current home—Luke writes that they lived in Nazareth, and had to register for Quirinius’ census because Joseph himself came from Bethlehem.

For Joseph, at least, this is a coming home story--he's returning to his hometown, even if he misses out on visiting his old high school and favorite hangout spots.  Yet in Luke’s Gospel, it’s the closest we get to learning much of anything of Jesus’ earthly stepfather.  The protagonist in Luke’s birth story is not Joseph, but, wonderfully, Mary—she is visited by the archangel Gabriel, she visits her relative Elizabeth, and she sings that amazing, wonderful song, the Magnificat, which begins with the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.”

Joseph?  Well, if Mary is the lead singer, Joseph is one of the awkward backup dancers whose face you can’t really make out unless you pause the music video at the exact right moment.

So this is big, that this story, Jesus’ birth, is playing out not in Mary’s home, where all the action had been previously, but on Joseph’s home turf.  And it’s appropriate—just as Joseph is a descendant of King David (as an aside—since Joseph was a carpenter, do you think he ever thought to himself, “gee, where’s my crown and scepter?”), Bethlehem was David’s birthplace just as it is Joseph’s, and just as it becomes Jesus’.  These days, we might ask if there was something in the water there, but really, it is nothing more and nothing less than how God works.

So Joseph, with Mary, returns home.  Initially, it is only to register for the census.  There is no indication that Jesus’ birth was planned this way, for Him to be born in Bethlehem, except by God.  You sort of have to think that Mary and Joseph weren’t expecting it, because otherwise they would have at least tried to find a way to adjust their travel plans accordingly.

And so Bethlehem becomes Jesus’ home as well, at least for a little while…because it HAD to happen this way.  For born unto us, this day, in the city of David, is a savior, Christ the Lord.

It HAD to happen this way.  For, when Jesus is born, the heavenly hosts appear to the shepherds—a people whose lives and work are wrapped up in being nomadic wanderers, off from place to place in search of land for their flocks to forage on.

And the angels say to these wanderers, “For born unto you, this day, in the city of David…”  They are saying to these men with no permanent house, “Welcome home.”

From there, the birth ripples out even wider.  In Matthew’s Gospel, there is the story of the wise men who came far from the East to worship Christ the King.  They were led by a star, and the star settled over Bethlehem, over the city of David, and beckoned the wise men forth.  The star was saying these men as well, these journeyers far from their towns, “Welcome home.”

And Jesus’ birth ripples out even wider and further today.  Because we gather here.  Amidst the cold, we gather in warmth.  Amidst the dark, we gather in light.  And amidst the winter, we gather in the promise of a new season of God’s love for us.

We have gathered in God’s house to worship the newborn Savior.  And if you look back on how you came to be here, on this night—not just the car ride here, but what brought you here: a sense of belonging, the embrace of a community, the longing to hear the story told…any of those things means that you were called here.

Like the wise men, like the shepherds, like Joseph the father of Jesus, God calls to you as well from His house to say, “Welcome home.”

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus came to Bethlehem because it was, and is, the city of David.

You came here tonight, a half a world away from Bethlehem, but not at all that far away from the city of David after all.

For, just as Jesus’ birth echoes out far and wide to all areas of the world, so too does this mean that the city of David is no longer limited to the town of Bethlehem.  With Christ’s birth, the city of David represents whatever it takes to bring God’s love into this world.  Even if it means saddling up a very pregnant Mary, her worried husband Joseph, and sending them off to be present for the coming of God’s own Son, made flesh and bone with a tongue and lips to speak our language, so that we might one day hear the Gospel.

And for that to happen, they had to be called to their home in the city of David. 

Just as we, too, are called.

You…me…all of us, we have been called here, to a home—God’s home.  On this night.  Called to the city of David.  For born unto us this night is a savior, which is Christ the Lord.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 24, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Meek Inherit the Earth"

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. 3 You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice. 4 As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. 5 Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. 6 A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7 There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever. The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (CEB)

“How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture”: Week Four

The author Jon Krakauer had been writing literally for decades—and in the process had survived some harrowing adventures, including a near-death experience on Mount Everest made famous in his account, Into Thin Air.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, his next book tackled issues of religion, accountability, and persecution, when he came out with Under the Banner of Heaven as an examination of Mormonism and American religious culture.  At the end of Under the Banner, he appended an epilogue, in which he explained that because he was writing on matters of the soul, he felt ethically compelled to disclose what his own take on God was.  This is what he wrote:

“I do not know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion.  In fact, I do not know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty…in the absence of conviction, I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life.  An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain—which does not strike me as something to lament…and if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why—which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator.  And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive.”

This sermon still bears the original title I had planned, and it still nominally occupies a place in the sermon series I had planned for this season of Advent, based on the book by Arthur Simon entitled “How Much Is Enough?”  But after three Sundays of Advent, I have preached on this original series but once.  The first Sunday of Advent was the Sunday immediately after our break-in.  Last Sunday, of course, the third Sunday of Advent, was the Sunday immediately after the Sandy Hook mass murder.  In both cases I abandoned my original planned sermon, and I am very glad I did in both cases.  But it does make it difficult to preach a sequel when there hasn’t really been an original.  You can't have The Empire Strikes Back without A New Hope, you know?

So, instead, I  thought that I would just talk with you today.  About Isaiah.  About Christmas.  About where we are as a church family right now.  This is just you, me, and God right now.

Because like Jon Krakauer, I think that many of us feel, even if we have seen the proverbial light and are leading lives of spiritual richness, we still feel in the dark this Christmas season, perhaps more so than usual.  I know I do.  And I know it is a nagging spiritual burden to have to bear.

Isaiah says we will break our yokes and our burdens.  And, over the past nearly year and a half that you and I have been church together, we have indeed unshackled ourselves from many a weight upon our shoulders.  It has been truly wonderful to see, and I am as thrilled to be here as the pastor of First Christian Church as I was the day I started.  We are actually going to keep with that theme a little bit, about what it is like to be church now, rather than when I first arrived, in January—it will be a sermon series centered around the “a time for every purpose under the sun” poem in Ecclesiastes 3.

But there is a time for burdens.  And that time seems to always be after that initial joy begins to wear off.  We know that Jesus knew there would be burdens to bear.  In almost the same breath as He said, “my burden is easy and my yoke is light,” He also said in the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are those who are poor spirit, who are grieving, and who are persecuting for doing what God asks.  And, of course, He said, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

But honestly, sometimes I think this earth isn’t what I want my inheritance to be.

But then I stop.  And I remember what Isaiah says.  A people walking in darkness has seen a great light, and that we have, in fact, shattered the yoke that has burdened us.

It is simple enough to say that we each have our own yokes and burdens to bear and to shatter.  Tougher to explain is how the great light gets us to that point of freeing ourselves from them.

In Genesis, it is written that in the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.  And God saw that the light was good.  In His unknowable wisdom and understanding, God saw that the light was not simply acceptable, or serviceable, or adequate.  It was good.  It is one of those phrases that you can savor as you speak it, a phrase that really does roll off the tongue.

It was good.

Now, if you’re like me and are prone to questioning and prodding with a stick anything placed before you, you may ask, what does it mean for an abstract phenomenon such as light to be “good”?  The closest I have ever come to an answer was during my seminary training, when I read an answer to that question by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, who said that light is good because it gives of itself freely.  It does not seek anything in return.  It does not ask whether you are friend or foe before lighting your path.  It fundamentally and unconditionally gives of itself, and thus, it is never, ever diminished.

We see this goodness of the light in the prophecy of Isaiah, for it shines for the people who had previously walked only in the pitch darkness.  It shines to protect and guide the people of God, pilgrims like ourselves who are well along now in our way of preparing for the birth of our Lord and Savior.  In creating the light, God has created an unending source of constant, unconditional lavishing of warmth and sight for His creation.

Because that is what Christmas is in the end, right?  It is part of proving to us that God will offer sight to the us who are blind and warmth to us who are cold, no matter what, even if it means giving over His Son to human parents, to human disciples, and ultimately to human persecutors.

It’s about God, in all His power and splendor, making Himself vulnerable as well.

It’s why Christ came to earth not as a fully grown man, but as a baby.

And it’s where we find ourselves today—feeling vulnerable, raw, and probably more than a bit exhausted by everything the past four weeks have thrown at us.

And so I stare into the light, longing to become the light.  It is through this light that I can, in fact, begin to see love.  I can reach out sense it, feel its warmth.  That mysterious yet awe-inspiring feeling that somehow in this imperfect world, where people kill one another by the bucketful, where thousands of children die by the day not only from gunfire but from starvation and neglect, where we look around and at times feel so much despair and see so much darkness, that this is, still, in the end, a world worth living for.  Because, like it or not, it is our inheritance.

The meek shall inherit the earth.

Lucky us, right?

But we are fortunate.  The earth, for all its ills, for all its sins, for all its fragility and brokenness, is still divinely made.

In the beginning, the earth was without form and void.  And God said, “Let there be light.”

And there was light.

For God, in the end, wants us to see.

He wants us to see His love for us.

And believe me, His love still lives.  I see it.  I see it in the great light of God, shining in our darkness.

And so I stare into the light.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 23, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Beating Swords Into Plows, and Spears Into Pruning Hooks

God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.

-Isaiah 2:4 (CEB)

I'm a huge fan of the Worst Case Scenario Survival series--the combination of quirky humor and learning interesting trivia has proven irresistible to me over the years, and I now own quite a few of the books.

In one of my favorites, their History Almanac, is the story of when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1752.

Now, back then, the tallest point of many towns was the church--especially if the church had a steeple.  But many church leaders "believed that lightning was sent by God as a punishment for sins--and Franklin's redirection of this tool of God's wrath was seen as an affront to God's will."

We know who won that particular debate--lightning rods became an important part of architecture, and many churches, in fact, serve as emergency shelters for severe weather precisely because they could withstand, among other things, lightning strikes.

But what I find interesting about that anecdote is the reluctance some churches had to challenging what they believed to be God's judgment (expressed via the destructiveness of lightning).

I've already talked about, in my entry from Tuesday, the idea that God was somehow executing or allowing judgment upon America during the Sandy Hooks tragedy last Friday.  In a sentence, I'm not too keen on it.

I'm similarly not too keen on how folks have suggested we react as a result of this massacre.  On a tree next to the elementary school which neighbors my church, somebody nailed this message: "One child shot is too much, allow teachers to defend them.  Make it a requirement for schoolteachers to have guns."

As one of my congregants succinctly observed, "I don't think that's the answer."

Neither do I.

But there's some odd theology at play here.

Clearly, some folks (however many) are seeing the loss of life in Newtown as a result of us turning away from God in some fashion or another (marriage equality, prayer in schools, take your pick).

But we're also saying that we should actively--and, in the case of this anonymous sign, violently--prevent this expression of God's judgment.

Which begs the question...if we believe in God and in His judgment, why are we--like Ben Franklin--trying to manipulate it?

The likely answer is, of course, that it is not God's judgment we are thwarting by asking ourselves how we can prevent another Sandy Hooks from happening.

We're working on thwarting our own evil instead.  As we should.  But my vote tends to be, as Isaiah puts it, for us beating our swords into plows and our spears into pruning hooks.

In an NPR story about the tragedy, and about how or why a good God allows such evil, Rabbi Steven Folberg talked about a bumper sticker he saw once.  It said: "God is good.  Evil is real.  God is all-powerful.  Pick two."

And that's about the size of the dilemma.

What if God is not all-powerful?

Would that be okay?

Would your faith be changed?

Or...maybe, would your faith be strengthened by the idea that a God who was NOT all-powerful, who did not have infinite stores of ability to draw upon, instead used some of His love and energy to create you?

It's just a thought.

But it's one that keeps returning to me after Sandy Hook.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

God's Everywhere: A Response to Mike Huckabee and James Dobson

I'll confess: I have very little patience with the notion that we can "kick God out" of anywhere.

As Robert De Niro says in my mother's favorite comedy ever, Meet the Fockers: "I'm everywhere, Focker."

(God, in this case, is Robert De Niro.  Who would make an interesting choice to play God in a movie sometime.  But I digress.)

More to the point, if we believe that God can be anywhere and/or everywhere, then to say we can methodically kick Him out the way a landlord evicts a tenant implies that we can manipulate God.

Which is a notion that I am very much not okay with. was hard for me to stomach the comments of Christian heavyweights Mike Huckabee and James Dobson in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

I alluded to this in my sermon on Sunday, but it is impossible to use God's presence or lack thereof as a barometer for bad things happening to someone or to somewhere.  For one, some of the most loving, faithful, compassionate Christians I know are people who have been kicked to the curb time and time again by the world we live in.  They have not, by any standard, been protected the way, say, I would want to be protected.  But they are some of the best people I know.

So that can't be it.

Nor can it be that God has simply picked up His ball and gone home.  After all, dispelling precisely that notion is the point of so many of the nevi'im--the Old Testament prophets.  They prophesy of a God who remains faithful to us DESPITE our derelictions, who will, always come back for His children (or His bride, if you're reading Hosea).

More to the point, though, I serve a congregation I absolutely love for their commitment to mission.  We just finished our holiday donation drive for the Cowlitz County Emergency Support Shelter, which houses women and children escaping abusive households.  We donate both necessities (clothes, diapers, toiletries) and Christmas gifts (toys, makeup, etc) for the families there, and we offer food to create a Christmas dinner for them.  It's one of the greatest and best things we do all year.

But in the midst of that particular mission, we were invaded, vandalized, and our walls, floors, and hymnals set on fire.

That cannot be because we are somehow unworthy of divine protection--after all, my church consists of loving, Bible-believing, and compassionate Christians.

More importantly, though, we are God's children.

Just like the people who were shot and killed in Clackamas.

Just like the children and their teachers who were murdered in Newtown.

Just like the victims in so many other gun-related massacres this year, both in America and abroad.

Regardless of the version of the Bible we use, or whether we believe in predestination or free will, or whether we believe in God at all, as Ecclesiastes says, time and chance happens to us all.

Time and chance happens to us all.

Time and chance.  Not wrath.

After all, even Jesus says that the person who hears His words but does not follow them is not judged until the end times (John 12:48, though, granted, if you believe the Mayans, the end times may just be upon us, but that's another can of tuna).

God executing immediate judgment?  Sorry, but I'm reserving judgment on that one.  Not only because it is a Biblically murky question, but because honestly, when you do what James Dobson did and blame the gays for the Newtown massacre, and you say that the massacre represents God allowing judgment to come upon us, you sound an awful lot like Fred Phelps and his hateful Westboro Baptist Church (yes, the "God Hates F*gs" church).

I'm not exaggerating here.  If there is a substantive difference between what the Westboro hatemongers preach (that dead soldiers are God's judgment for us being inclusive of gays and lesbians) and what James Dobson just said (that dead children are God's judgment on us for legalizing marriage equality), I cannot see it.

I wasn't originally planning for my initial post after the Newtown massacre to be a theological takedown like this--I'm still praying, reflecting, and trying to process all of the evil that has taken place.

But what these two guys are saying amounts to theological malpractice.  And far be it for me to criticize fellow ministers, but that may be the only way to expose the flaws in their logic and in their theology in this instance.

There's a lot of people saying a lot of things about this tragedy.  You owe it to yourself, and to your faith, to examine those things critically.

Please continue to pray for all of those affected by the plague of mass murders in 2012.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 16, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Saying "Yes" to Life"

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” 4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!” 6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” 8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.”  (CEB)

“How Much is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” Week Three

 She is a friend of mine from college, has been a mother now for nearly five years. We have always lived on opposite ends of the country, but thanks to things like Facebook, we can weigh in on each other’s lives pretty regularly. Her daughter, Ava, starts school next year, and judging from all of the pictures of her my friend Lauren (her mother) has put on Facebook—of Ava smiling ear-to-ear wearing a princess dress, or of them getting spa facials together—Ava has become a delightful little girl. With Lauren’s permission, I want to share just a tiny bit of her story of when she found out about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut:

"Ava walked out of her room and saw me sitting teary-eyed on the couch as images from catastrophe scrolled across the TV. She came over and wiped my face, with a look of raw, honest, visceral concern and compassion sparkling in her eyes and tweaking the corners of her mouth upwards. She put a finger on each end of my mouth and attempted to contort my face into a grin. “Smile, Mommy,” she said. “Everything is a-o-k. Right?” 

Here’s the thing. Everything is not ok. There is nothing ok about 20 children having their lives snuffed out before they’ve even had a chance to live them. It is not ok that hundreds of parents in Connecticut tonight are having to explain to their children why they won’t see their friends or teachers anymore. It is not ok that there are families in Colorado that fear movie theaters, and loved ones in Oregon who are skittish about making their holiday purchases at shopping malls. It is not ok by any stretch of the imagination, and unless something changes, it’s never going to be. These things are going to keep happening." 

I confess, I worry the exact same thing. This is the sinful world we have made for ourselves—not the world God has created for us: a world where, rather than having faith that we will learn and act from such a tragedy, we are resigned to it happening again in another time, in another place, with other people. And this cannot be our way forward. This cannot be our way to God.

This is a new sermon series for us as a church, as well as a new year. This Sunday marks the first Sunday of the new church year, which doesn’t quite adhere to our January-through-December calendar—it usually runs November-through-November, and it begins with this first season that we call Advent. It is a time of, as John the Baptist preached to us, preparing the way for the Lord who is to come to us on Christmas Day. And we’ll be doing so this Christmas season by reading together one of the great forerunners in the Old Testament to Jesus, the prophet Isaiah. He is the one who prophesied the coming of a virgin who would give birth to a child called Emmanuel, but Isaiah has so much more to share with us than that. And we’ll be looking at what he had to say early in his prophetic career in light of the book “How Much is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” by Arthur Simon, who founded the Christian nonprofit organization Bread for the World. We’ll be juxtaposing a passage from Isaiah with a chapter from “How Much Is Enough?” each Sunday. We began with the chapter entitled, “Fat Wallets, Empty Lives.” Last Sunday was the chapter “Rushing to Nowhere.” This Sunday, the chapter is entitled, appropriately and tragically enough, “Saying “Yes” to Life.”

This is the second sermon in just three so far in this series where I am veering far away from what was originally intended when I created this series many weeks ago. So be it.

But there is one story of Arthur Simon’s that I do want to share with you this week. He writes: 

(Angsar) Sovik has had a long and distinguished career as professor of religion and Asian history at St. Olaf College…in retirement, one of his activities was to make bookends from the timber of old buildings being renovated at St. Olaf and give the bookends away before Christmas to anyone who agreed to contribute twenty-five dollars to world relief or advocacy against hunger…When I expressed amazement at what he had done with his (then) eighty-five years, Sovik told me how blessed he has been from childhood on. He said that from the time he was a young boy, his father always greeted him (in Norwegian) with the words, “Are you saying ‘yes’ to life, my son?” 

In Arthur Simon’s retelling, “are you saying “yes” to life” is a greeting. It is incomplete, meant only as a beginning for a conversation, a get-together, an encounter of any degree of importance. And, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, there is, I think, a way to complete it. In a culture of death, are you saying “yes” to life? In a culture of death, are WE saying “yes” to life?

We are all scrambling, I am sure, to seek answers as to what has just happened in Newtown, Connecticut. We want to know how. We want to know why. And those answers may well come in time. But for the moment, there is a more important answer God wants us to seek: the answer to, “In a culture of death, are we saying “yes to life?” Because it is, in a sentence, the dilemma that Isaiah faces here today.

This is one of my absolute favorite stories in all of Scripture—the calling of Isaiah. It is mystical, inspirational, otherworldly, and awe-inspiring all at the same time. It elicits the best possible action from Isaiah: he says “yes” to God’s calling, he says “yes” to offering God’s word to us, he says “yes” to life in every possible sense.

Yet it is a story that begins in death. It begins in the year that King Uzziah died.

And in case you were wondering, Scripture tells us that Uzziah was an excellent monarch. Both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles vouch not only for the prosperity that occurred under his watch, but also for, at least at first, his willingness to stay true to the ways of Yahweh.

So even though any death is a time for mourning for someone, this isn’t a case of “well, maybe they’ll be better off under the next guy.” This was the loss of a king who was the genuine article.

Yet still Isaiah writes, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”

In the year that he and his countrymen experienced the loss of their leader, Isaiah saw the Lord. He heard the Lord. God asked him, “Who shall I send?” And Isaiah said, “Here I am, send me.”

Isaiah said yes.

In this year of loss, can you still bring yourself to say, “I saw the Lord?” I know the answer to that question may not always be “yes,” but…God is not a fair-weather friend. God is ever here.

In the year that I have had to bury three people—two of whom died too young—I saw the Lord.

In the year when our church was invaded, desecrated, and at the mercies of fire, I saw the Lord.

In the year when our brothers and sisters in humanity fell to the fire of gunmen in Clackamas, Oregon, in Aurora, Colorado, and at the Sikh temple at Oak Creek, Wisconsin, I saw the Lord.

And in the year when twenty kindergarten-aged children and their teachers were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, I saw the Lord.

Honestly, it is not shocking that the Lord is still visible. For God knows, just as we do, that anything can happen, but that in the end, only one thing will. And when that one outcome which does occur also happens to be God’s will, He rejoices in heaven that all is well in that moment.

But when what happens is not what He wills, God is visible. He makes His presence known. God makes His presence known to David as he mourns his son Absalom. God makes His presence known to Jeremiah as the prophet mourns his exile. God made His presence known to each of us by not only sending us His Son, but by resurrecting Him whilst we grieved Him.

Which means that I have no appetite for the belief that God was not there in the school because we have somehow kicked God out of school, or that we have somehow told God we no longer need or want Him. After all, only a few short weeks ago, an act of violence was committed against His house—against THIS house—and it surely was not because God had left this place.

 No, God was present. God has never left the temple. Nor must we. We are still called here. Because out of all of the things that can happen, this is the one thing God wishes to happen: for us to hear His call. To accept it. To say “yes” to life in a culture of death.

It is not easy, saying “yes” to life. The way of death and destruction is much quicker. It is, sadly, far easier to use ourselves as weapons to destroy, rather than as tools to build.

But with his vision, Isaiah learned that the ease of the task does not matter. Not when it is God who wills it. So while saying “yes” to life might be harder for us now, the difficulty does not matter. It is, out of anything that can happen, the one thing that must happen.


Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 16, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Need You to Survive: On Identity and the Christmas Spirit

I'm a pretty avid follower of soccer, both here in the States and in Europe.  It hasn't been the best year for soccer, though, as racism and homophobia have made appearances over and  over and over and over and over, in many cases overshadowing whatever actually happens on the field.

I have to admit--the "ism"s are tarnishing my favorite sport, and, in the interest of full disclosure, they are also tarnishing my favorite holiday: Christmas.  It doesn't overshadow what actually happened on Christmas (or, you know, whenever Jesus was born.  The Bible doesn't actually state His birthday.) but it does put a damper on what Christmas spirit I currently have.

Lest this come across as too sanctimonious or smug, I do not have an especially politically correct sense of humor.  I make no claims to being remotely enlightened on the subject of race relations or queer inclusion.  As a heterosexual man, I recognize that I am writing and ministering from a place of unearned privilege.  And though I possess a distinct, non-European ethnicity, I self-identify as Caucasian.

But I also have come to believe in diversity as something not to be tolerated, but to be affirmed and celebrated.

And it is because I have accepted this singular notion as true that I'm kinda upset right now.

Some of that is for more superficial reasons--such as, it's been driving me nuts that I have a hard time finding Christmas cards that have angels who look anything other than incredibly, ridiculously, unbelievably Nordic.

Some of it cuts deeper, though.  I expected a backlash to the passage of Referendum 74, the ballot measure in the state of Washington which legalized same-sex marriage.  And I've seen that backlash--in comments from people around town, in news stories across the country, and in letters to the editor of our local paper.

But I've been taking it more personally than I thought I would.  I haven't before had a colleague and friend attacked in the local paper like Rene was this morning.  At least when letter writers were responding to the letter we both signed, I was being attacked as well.

Yet it still stokes my temper.  It still puts a barrier between me and the hope, peace, joy, and love I am supposed to be preaching about during the church season of Advent.

After roadtripping up to Seattle last weekend to see a production of the play Black Nativity, I'm wondering how we all can actually live the kind of Gospel spirit I saw on display there.  The encore was an amazing rendition of "I Need You to Survive," which might just be one of my favorite Christian songs ever.

One of the lines in that song, "I won't harm you with words from my mouth" is what I'm struggling with.

Because it is an unfulfilled promise.

Because it is an unachieved goal.

And because it is something that I fail at as well.

But I'll keep trying.

And I just need to know that we all will...that we will all continue to improve in God's grace as we stumble on towards Bethlehem together.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Eric's Guide to Ethical Gift-Giving

(Could that title have possibly contained any more alliteration?!)

It's two weeks until Jesus' birthday, and since He's not around for us to give birthday presents to, the presents have to be given to why not our family and friends?

Yes, my fellow adherents, the true reason for the season: GIFTS!

At the risk of spoiling some of the surprise for my immediate family, this is the second year in a row that I have bought all of their presents from either Christian nonprofits or from companies dedicated to  an ethics of sustainability and worker's rights.

These are gifts that actually do give back--in addition to obtaining something nice for a loved one, I am also giving my hard-earned salary to companies and charities who I know will do good in the world.

In other words, the impact of the gift doesn't stop with me giving it.

If you're looking for a few places to buy such gifts for your loved ones as we rush towards Christmas, here are a few of my humble recommendations.  This list should by no means be considered exhaustive--there are LOTS of great causes and companies worthy of your patronage this Christmas season.  There are merely a few of my favorites:

World Vision is an ecumenical, evangelical world relief organization dedicated to providing material aid to the poor while also championing their cause and spreading awareness of their lives without condition (they are adamantly against leading someone to hear a religious message as a condition of their help).  It has grown into a huge organization with a genuinely global presence.  If you donate to their Maximum Impact fund, there are a number of gifts--predominantly crafts and clothing accessories--you can select from to give to your loved ones this Christmas.

This one is very important to me for sentimental reasons.  One of my pastoral counseling professors in seminary is a Carmelite priest, and I actually received much of my religious education from the Roman Catholic seminaries in the Graduate Theological Union.  Recommended to me by one of my seminary classmates, Mystic Monk Coffee is a micro-roaster run by the Carmelite monks of a monastery near Cody, Wyoming.  They do this so that they, like other Catholic monks, can be self-sustaining, and the coffee is really very good, with a variety of roasts and blends (including some fair trade and organic options) available in both whole bean and ground packages.  They also sell tea, chocolates, mugs, and various coffee-related gizmos.

Ten Thousand Villages, like World Vision, has been around for quite a while and is a leader in the international fair trade arena, with relationships with hundreds of artisans around the world.  This has led to a wide array of products for sale, including crafts, dishes, clothing, decor, and more.  They are also committed to environmental sustainability, and have won numerous distinctions for their commitment to reducing their carbon footprint--no small feat for an intentionally global-oriented business.  This is a discovery I can credit to my parents--they have been patronizing Ten Thousand Villages for years, and I enjoy maintaining that particular family tradition.

Even though exposes on the conditions of sweatshop labor have been running for years, sweatshops still exist because, hey, we like cheap clothes.  American Apparel has taken a different tack by manufacturing all of its clothing in the USA while also advocating for comprehensive immigration reform on behalf of immigrants who come here and end up being exploited on the job market.  After the Prop 8 same-sex marriage ban passed in California (where they are headquartered), American Apparel created a line of t-shirts to express solidarity with the GLBT community.

If you want to give a straight-up donation in somebody else's name, there are tons of great organizations to donate to, and this is but one.  Living Water is affiliated with the Advent Conspiracy--the grassroots movement I based my Advent sermon series on last year--and they are dedicated to drilling clean water wells throughout the global south.  They recognize water not just as a fundamental necessity, but as a keystone to so many other things, including gender equality (as water shortages tend to affect women and children the most).  After my sermon series last year, several folks I knew ended up making donations to Living Water as a Christmas present to me.  It was incredible.

Those are a few of my favorites.  Do y'all have any favorite ethical gift sources you like to buy from for the holidays?  Feel free to share!

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Rushing to Nowhere"

Isaiah 5:18-23 

Doom to those who drag guilt along with cords of fraud, and haul sin as if with cart ropes, 19 who say, “God should hurry and work faster so we can see; let the plan of Israel’s holy one come quickly, so we can understand it.” 20 Doom to those who call evil good and good evil, who present darkness as light and light as darkness, who make bitterness sweet and sweetness bitter. 21 Doom to those who consider themselves wise, who think of themselves as clever. 22 Doom to the wine-swigging warriors, mighty at mixing drinks, 23 who spare the guilty for bribes, and rob the innocent of their rights. (CEB)

“How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” Week Two

The child had been born for a mission, his parents said, to be engaging and bright and entertaining, so that he might, as they put it, “go up and down, winning lost humanity with the message of the Master.”  Programmed from birth by his parents, he traveled the country, performing—that’s the word they used.  Not preaching.  But performing, like a circus animal.  As he put it, “As a child, I would want to go ut and play but we would spend hours and hours memorizing” instead.

As the writer Karen Spears Zacharias put it, the boy “enjoyed all the attention and adoration of adults twice as big as him.  But he did not, at any point, believe in any of it.  How could he?”  When, many years later, they made a documentary about his life, the boy-turned man, Marjoe, said, “I can’t think of a time when I believed in God.  Or I thought it was a miracle of God that I preached.  I knew I could do it well.  My parents had trained me.  But I never thought I was some miracle child of any kind.”

It is a terrifying, troubling, and ultimately preventable story of what can, and will, happen when we reach for God not out of authenticity and honesty, but out of a need for shallow entertainment and, above all else, a need for filling a void that could not be filled by ourselves.  Far from winning people with the message of God, it turned a boy, perhaps permanently, away from God.  And we do the same to ourselves, sometimes without even realizing or thinking about it.

This is a new sermon series for us as a church, as well as a new year.  This Sunday marks the first Sunday of the new church year, which doesn’t quite adhere to our January-through-December calendar—it usually runs November-through-November, and it begins with this first season that we call Advent.  It is a time of, as John the Baptist preached to us, preparing the way for the Lord who is to come to us on Christmas Day.  And we’ll be doing so this Christmas season by reading together one of the great forerunners in the Old Testament to Jesus, the prophet Isaiah.  He is the one who prophesied the coming of a virgin who would give birth to a child called Emmanuel, but Isaiah has so much more to share with us than that.  And we’ll be looking at what he had to say early in his prophetic career in light of the book “How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” by Arthur Simon, who founded the Christian nonprofit organization Bread for the World.  We’ll be juxtaposing a passage from Isaiah with a chapter from “How Much Is Enough?” each Sunday, beginning last Sunday with the chapter entitled, “Fat Wallets, Empty Lives.”  This Sunday, we turn to a chapter entitled, “Rushing to Nowhere.”

I didn’t quite preach the sermon I had originally planned to last week, so this is sort of a second chance to gain some traction in the overall arc of this series as it was originally written.  Put simply, this series was created by me as a spiritual sequel of sorts to last year’s Advent sermon series, “The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?”  That series was all about how we, as the church, as the body of Christ, can still live the Christmas spirit.  This series is perhaps a little more…Grinch-like—it tries to ask why we don’t always actually do so!

Arthur Simon writes:

We may feel harried, with too much to do and not enough time to do it.  Yet studies reveal that most of us are making poor use of our leisure time; we are also frequently bored, and may try to buy our way out of boredom with the latest distraction…Not knowing what to do with their free time (when they have it) or feeling too tired for active recreation, most people resort to passive leisure that tends to leave them feeling weaker, more irritable, and less happy.  The baffling combination of activity-related stress and poor use of leisure adds to the evidence that burnout often stems not from doing too much, but from the impression that no matter how much we do, we are not getting anywhere.

We are, in a sentence, rushing to nowhere.

We don’t need to do a show of hands, but I am willing to bet that a lot of you may well like to have fewer moving parts in your lives right about this time of year.  If so, it is to you that Isaiah is offering these particular words.

It is important to remember that unlike many—perhaps most—of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah is not prone to theatrics.  Unlike Ezekiel, he never eats a scroll to personify the consumption of God’s word.  Unlike Jonah, he never spends time being digested by somebody else’s future sushi.  Isaiah had more street cred than that—in the words of our hipster neighbors down in Portland, Isaiah very rapidly goes mainstream.  His career is one of royalty—he actually served in the royal courts.  Which isn’t that surprising, really—other Old Testament prophets did.  Saul had Samuel, David had Nathan, and Solomon had Zadok.

But as opposed to some of the other prophets, whom we may never know if they actually gained a direct audience with the people of means and power they were trying to convince, we know that Isaiah has the ears of the crown.  He prophesies directly to kings like Ahaz and Hezekiah.  He’s prophesying to people who, probably, like us, have their lives going in a million different directions at once.

Which is in direct contrast to the vast, vast majority of the population in Biblical times.  I’ve mentioned this before, but there was no middle class in Biblical Israel—you were either wealthy, or you were subsistence-level poor.  Aside from perhaps some of the merchants, there was very little in-between.  Which meant that the idea of leisure time would have been a fantasy, a non-existent notion, to the masses of subsistence-level farmers and ranchers in Israel.  They had to spend every hour of every day simply raising enough food to feed their families, never mind saving up for that Christmas ham that has become tradition at our dinner tables.  That’s a luxury that they couldn’t afford, so single-minded they had to be in order to make a living.  Their’s was a one-track life, with one goal: survival.

So it is the rulers, the power that be, who juggle a wider breadth of tasks.  They may work as equally hard, but the rulers are concerned not just with survival, but with diplomacy, with keeping order, and with appeasing whichever gods you happened to be worshiping at the time, which, for ancient Israel, was not always God.

So when Isaiah is shouting at them—the rulers of the land—“ah to you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink,” he’s talking to us as well, the people who try to use what spare time we have to escape from the variety of burdens we have built for ourselves.  But back then, King Uzziah didn’t have an Xbox 360, or a plasma TV, or an iPad (wait…oops).

But they had wine.  Isaiah is calling them heroes at their passive leisure pursuits.  It would be like God telling us today, “You who are heroes at watching Real Housewives of Orange County, and are valiant at playing Grand Theft Auto!”  That’s what’s going on here!  It isn’t that the Bible is anti-alcohol—after all, Jesus turned water into wine—it’s that the Bible is anti-things-that-make-us-forget-what’s-really-important, important stuff like fairness, justice, and equality.

Because look at how this passage ends—a condemnation of people who, puffed up on their misguided leisure, turn right into wrong, light into dark, and sweet into bitter.  All of which are way, way, more important, but hey…we’re heroes at mixing a mean mojito, so, you know, go us.

Lest I sound holier-than-thou here, this is another one of those messages directed at me as well.  Earlier this week, Salon magazine published an article entitled, “Video Games are Designed to Get You Hooked.”  I immediately slapped it up on my Facebook wall, with the caption of, “Well, this explains a lot.”  I have to take the approach towards console video games the same way many recovering addicts have to towards their drug of choice—complete abstinence.  Otherwise, I would never get any work done, and all of my sermons would likely be about how you can find God by beating Bowser in Super Mario.

And if this is all making me sound like some sort of culture stickler, that isn’t quite what I’m going for, nor is it what the Bible is going for.  I truly do not care what music you listen to.  I may make fun of you for it, if the music stinks, yet I won’t tell you not to listen to it.

But I do care about when your leisure time isn’t actual leisure—when it isn’t doing its job of actually relaxing you and restoring you so that you can return to the great and unending work of actually living the Gospel out in your lives in way that uplifts the people around you.  Marjoe, the child at the beginning of my message, his was no leisure time, and it wounded him terribly.

And this is a season that is supposed to be a vacation for many, but in fact creates much more work as well.  Stress often gets worse during the holiday season, depression as well.  Loneliness and despair and burnout often follow.

None of these things are what Christmas was ever meant to be about.  Christmas is about community, because we are, in fact, welcoming someone both old and new into our community for the very first time.  May our work be to making that community we welcome the Christ Child into as inclusive and as loving as is humanly possible. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington.
December 9, 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

If Christian Denominations Were Christmas Songs

The title is mostly self-explanatory. =)    In the spirit of the season, I'm having a little fun with our favorite carols.  Please do not be offended if your denomination was not included, as there are limits to my creativity, even when it comes to poking fun at the institution I lovingly serve.

And in case it needs to be said...this entry definitely falls into the "tongue-in-cheek" category.

Baptist: "The Friendly Beasts."  I don't think I've ever been to a Baptist church of any stripe (American, Southern, etc) without getting mobbed by extraordinarily well-meaning churchgoers who want to know EVERYTHING about me.  Over a casserole.

Churches of Christ: "Little Drummer Boy."  Part of their split with the Disciples concerned instrumental music in worship--they weren't so keen on it.  Hence, the drum!  I suppose bell-type carols could have worked too, but drums are probably a bigger flash point with congregations these days.

Episcopalian/Anglican: "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."  Lets be honest, this song is more about one's love for figgy pudding than it is about Christmas.  And the only thing more English than Anglicanism is figgy pudding (losing to Germany in soccer is pretty close, though).

Lutheran: "Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful."  Why Martin Luther would like this carol: it's based on the theme of Heaven's triumph.  Why he wouldn't like this carol: It's originally in Latin.  Worth it?

Methodist: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."  It's probably the best-known carol written by Charles Wesley, younger brother of the Methodist forefather John Wesley, and it's got four verses, like the four sides to a certain quadrilateral...

Presbyterian: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."  Remember John Calvin and his notion of predestination?  Well..."He's making a list, and checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice."  Except if Calvin were Santa Claus, we'd all end up on the "naughty" list.

Quaker: "Silent Night."  If you've ever been to an unprogrammed Quaker service, silence is the ticket unless someone feels moved to speak.  Which may not may not happen.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any carols about oatmeal.

Roman Catholic: "Sleigh Ride."  This one is for the smells-and-bells crowd.  You hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too?  And the chestnuts going pop, pop, pop?  Done and done.

United Church of Christ: "I Wonder as I Wander."  Since the running gag is that "UCC" really stands for, "Unitarians Considering Christ," what better carol than one that begins with the question, "I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come here to die?"

Disciples of Christ: "Jingle Bell Rock."  Because we rock.  Duh.

Any suggestions to add?  Any changes you'd make to my selections?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jovan Belcher, Bob Costas, and Where Sports and Church Intersect

This may not sound at first like a chronicling of my feelings in retrospect on everything that has happened to my church in the past week.  But rest assured, it is.

I grew up in a mighty football town.  Kansas City has an amazing sports culture, and just as I grew up idolizing George Brett and Bo Jackson of the Royals (so great was my admiration for them that my mother used that to her advantage in parenting me: "George Brett doesn't cry when his mother clips his toenails!"), so too did I live for Sundays at noon when the Chiefs would be playing football on television.  Tens of thousands of people did.  And that sports-crazy atmosphere had a permanent effect on me: I haven't lived in Kansas City for eight or nine years, but I still follow its sports teams fervently.

So it wasn't just a freak occurrence when I read about the tragic murder-suicide perpetrated by starting Chiefs lineback Jovan Belcher this past Saturday, in which he shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and the mother of his three-month-old infant daughter, before shooting and killing himself.  This was a stranger, yes, but one whom I had followed for years.  Even that thin layer of familiarity made it more traumatizing.  I used it in my sermon in part because I was still trying to process and comprehend it.

As, I am sure, a great many of us are.

Enter, in the midst of this, NBC's Bob Costas' comments about the circumstances of the Belcher-Perkins murder-suicide--namely, the use of a handgun to perpetrate the crime.  For this, Costas has already taken a heaping dose of criticism for bringing public policy into the world of sports.

Part of the criticism of Costas seems to simply be from folks who disagree with him--that guns don't kill people--but that's a different kettle of fish.

The criticism I truly cannot fathom is the argument that sports should be divorced from conversations such as guns, crime, and suicide.  Because to me, that ship sailed a long time ago.

The spate of suicides of NFL players like Junior Seau, and of NHL players like Derek Boogard (and before them, the murder-suicide of professional wrestler Chris Benoit) means that these conversations HAVE to be taking place, no matter how hard they are to have, because this is peoples' lives we are talking about here.  As Erik Wemple notes in his Washington Post piece that I link to above, we can't just take the easy route out here.

It may be easier for us to not imagine our athletes as regular people, as we so rarely see them not on the field or at some charity or media function, but that doesn't make it right.  It may be easier for us to use sports simply as an escape from the real world, but that mentality is a fallacy.  Sports are a part of the real world--a multibillion dollar enterprise that entertains us.

And this is a mentality that I worry overflows into how we view church as well.  Not because I don't think church should be entertaining--I DO think church must be engaging and attractive, because what good is truth if we cannot communicate it--but because we expect churches to be simply comfort zones, not places to be challenged.

And on some level, it is fine to come to church wanting to feel uplifted, just as it is fine to come to a sports arena expecting to be swept up in the action for a couple of hours.  I know I do it.

But if that is ALL that church or sports offers you, you're probably doing it wrong.

I feel like people are getting upset at Bob Costas for the same reason we sometimes get upset with the church: they challenge us rather than letting us live in cocoons.

I said essentially this in yesterday's TDN article on our recovery, but it's easy to preach, "Hey, Jesus loves you."  It's a lot harder to preach, "Here's what you do because of that reality."  And that's why I have this particular job--it's tough to do.  If it were easy, people wouldn't need the help of a pastor.

But this means that church cannot simply be easy either.  It MUST be difficult.  It MUST be messy.  Being part of a church is work.  The minute it stops being work is the minute the grace God offers becomes cheap.

And that means tackling the tough stuff in church as well.  It means tackling questions like, "How do we forgive people who broke into our sacred space?"  It takes courage to ask those questions, and we cannot, on reflex or reaction, criticize those who do for rocking the boat.  Jesus was all about rocking the boat (you know, when He wasn't walking on water towards the boat).

Put differently: church has to have a part in those questions if it is to retain its meaning, importance, and relevancy in today's world.

And everything that has happened to us in the last week has been a powerful, stark reminder of that reality.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, December 2, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Fat Wallets, Empty Lives"

Isaiah 3:13-15

13 The LORD rises to accuse; he stands to judge the peoples.
14The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: You yourselves have devoured the vineyard; the goods stolen from the poor are in your houses.
15 How dare you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor? says the LORD God of heavenly forces. (CEB)

“How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” Week One

I realize this is a time when many of you want to hear about what is happening here, but I want us to begin by going halfway across the country to my hometown of Kansas City, because it has vaulted to prominence in the national news over the last 72 or so hours.  First, it was because one of the winning Powerball tickets—one of only two that promised the riches of the widely-publicized $587.5 million jackpot—was bought by a family in one of Kansas City’s Northland suburbs.  Of course, the national press descended, especially after the family’s identity was revealed, and the sports world even got involved, with one of the newspaper’s sports columnists writing a half-serious, half-joking column asking the family to donate some of its proceeds to increase the payroll of our woeful Major League Baseball team, the Kansas City Royals.

But just a couple of days later, the headlines on the papers were very, very different, as a four-year member of the Kansas City Chiefs football team shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend early in the morning in a domestic dispute before driving to the team’s practice facility and, in full view of his head coach and general manager, shot and killed himself.  He was younger than me—only 25 years old—and left behind a three-month-old infant daughter.

Both stories centered around people of no longer ordinary means.  The husband and wife of the Northland family who won the Powerball have both already given notice at their jobs.  And the athlete who committed a murder-suicide had made millions playing a sport that many children happily play for free on playgrounds across the country.

And in both stories—ranging from celebration to sorrow in great extremes—a common theme has already emerged: the importance of having something to live for, rather than something merely to destroy…a theme that, perhaps more than ever, applies to this church today.

This is a new sermon series for us as a church, as well as a new year.  This Sunday marks the first Sunday of the new church year, which doesn’t quite adhere to our January-through-December calendar—it usually runs November-through-November, and it begins with this first season that we call Advent.  It is a time of, as John the Baptist preached to us, preparing the way for the Lord who is to come to us on Christmas Day.  And we’ll be doing so this Christmas season by reading together one of the great forerunners in the Old Testament to Jesus, the prophet Isaiah.  He is the one who prophesied the coming of a virgin who would give birth to a child called Emmanuel, but Isaiah has so much more to share with us than that.  And we’ll be looking at what he had to say early in his prophetic career in light of the book “How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” by Arthur Simon, who founded the Christian nonprofit organization Bread for the World.  We’ll be juxtaposing a passage from Isaiah with a chapter from “How Much Is Enough?” beginning with the chapter entitled, “Fat Wallets, Empty Lives.”

I’m not going to pretend that discovering the devastation to the sanctuary provided any sort of epiphany, that I was overcome with emotion, or forgiveness, or even with God’s presence.  It was a void of numbness.  I felt nothing.  I could do nothing, say nothing, think nothing.
But that’s the sort of pain that others feel every single day by the abuse and misery that is heaped upon them in their own lives, the result of all sorts of evil—abuse, violence, homelessness, poverty.  The all-consuming nothingness that I felt, that you may well have felt as well, is a daily experience for many of God’s children.

And that is what necessitates Isaiah’s prophecy here.  It is what necessitates a God who will go to the mat for us, who will, as Isaiah says, “rise to argue His case,” who challenges those who do wrong by saying “What do you mean by crushing MY people?”

If nothing else, that is what I hope God is asking the people who broke into our sanctuary, who violated God’s house, and who personally affected each and every one of us, that God is asking them, “What do you mean by hurting my people so?”

Because I have already given up on asking that question myself.  I have received no answers.

I imagine that is probably how it is meant to be.  I may not know why someone did this, but I do need to know how to forgive them.  We may not know why people do things to one another, but what we do need to know is how to respond with grace, and with compassion, and with love.

It is something that is perhaps easier this time of the year, to respond to destruction with reconciliation.  It’s perhaps a bit more natural during the holidays to be nicer.  It shouldn’t be that way, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is probably that way.  And it is that way precisely because of what we have grown to value, and what, in turn, we have grown to neglect.

As Arthur Simon puts it, there “lies a widespread myth that God and life in God are nice but largely irrelevant—mere superstition to some, for others a bit of religion we tack on to the rest of life.  The natural world, on the other hand, is real.  What matters in life is what we can get and enjoy for ourselves…(so) the problem is not that we’ve tried faith and found it wanting, but that we’ve tried mammon and found it addictive, and as a result find following Christ inconvenient.”

Make no mistake, this is one such time in which we might decide that following Christ is inconvenient.  This is the Messiah who is loopy enough to, when asked, “How many times do I forgive my neighbor?  As many as seven times?” respond by saying, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”  This is the Savior who is radical enough to dare to say to us, “You judge by human standards, but I judge no person.”  And this is the Christ who is so connected with what God wants that He can actually say to us, “Forgive, and I tell you, you shall be forgiven.”

If anything, what has happened to us puts to lie the notion that Arthur Simon writes about here: that the natural world is real.  It may be real, but it is also finite.  It’s tangible.  Limited.  And, as we’ve learned and re-learned this week, ultimately destructible.

Your faith, and your capacity to forgive, does not have to be that way.  It does not have to be so easily destroyed as an altar flower arrangement, or so easily burnt as a paper hymnal.  And I think that God would not want our faith to be that way either.  He wants us to have faith that when we are hurt, when our vineyards have been devoured, when our spoils are taken from us, that He will rise to argue His case for us.  He wants us to have faith that He will go to bat for us.
And that is what we have to live for, as people of faith—a God who loves us so much that He actually tells us to knock it off in Romans—He says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”  This is a God who has got our backs, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.  And I know it may not feel like that now for you.  But it is still so.

It is so because, in the end, we cannot be expected to keep up with every extreme, every ebb and flow, of this wild, painful, incredible, sinful, life-giving world that God has left to us.  Someday, the things that happen this week will be replaced in our short-term memories by the things that happen next week—things good, bad, and indifferent alike.  The identities of the Powerball winners will no longer be the topic of converastion, the horror of a murder-suicide will no longer be at the forefront of our minds, and the damage done to our sacred space will be erased by all of the love that this sanctuary holds.

Which is, in the end, probably for the best.  This isn’t forgetting.  This is catharsis.  This is a form of healing.  After all, to catalog every wrong, every grievance, and to file it away deep in the recesses of our anger and our rage serves no one.

Unless we actually do something about it.

Which is the ENTIRE point of Isaiah.  We can do something—we can turn to the God who does not just politely request, or gently ask, or calmly inquire, for peace and justice for His children.  He demands it.  He commands it.  And He is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that there will, in the end, be peace—including sending His own Son to us.  The proof of God’s commitment to us and to our wellbeing will be lying in the manger, gurgling and crying, just a few short weeks from now.

This is the church season of Advent—a time of waiting and of preparing for the Lord’s coming.  This is a time when we are called by John the Baptist to make straight the paths of the Lord.  And these aren’t just literal paths, the paths that our feet trod on by the lake or on the street.  These are the paths into our very selves where we can carry the hurt and anger that has been building up for an entire year—anger that maybe we thought would be temporary, but that has solidified like stone into something far more permanent.  My own anger this week is one such thing that I pray is temporary, and that I pray will not become a fixture in my soul.  Which is why this sermon is for me as well.  It is why John the Baptist’s command is for me as well.

Make straight the path of the Lord into your own heart.

Make straight the path of the Lord into your own soul.

And I promise you, you will be amazed at the ways God wants to work in your life.

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 2, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

This Month in Worship: December 2012, and a Recovery Update

In the midst of everything that has happened to us this week, I forgot to actually update with what we'll be studying this month in worship.  That will information will be pasted below from our December 2012 newsletter, in italics.

As for a real quick update on the building and its recovery: the professionals dispatched by our insurance folks have been absolutely fantastic.  They worked on the most heavily damaged bathroom on Thursday, on the sanctuary on Friday, and today removed all of the machines they were using to deodorize the place.  Meanwhile, volunteers from our congregation set to work on Thursday on the other bathroom, the sanctuary, and the kitchen.  We completely intend for our Sunday worship activities to continue as planned, with Sunday School for all ages at 9:45 am, worship at 11:00 am, and fellowship time after worship, plus our monthly ACTS prayer service at 6:00 pm in the fellowship hall.

To everyone who has been committed to and involved in our recovery--congregants, friends of the congregation, insurance and cleaning professionals, my own personal friends, family, and colleagues, the Disciples of Christ denomination, and the community at large--I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks for the grace and compassion God has shown through each and every one of you.

This has been a trying week for all of us, including me.  But we are determined to continue our ministry and mission, and we are already doing so.  With vigor.

Yours in Christ,

This Month in Worship: December 2012

According to the church worship year, it is time to be wishing each other a happy new year!  The church calendar, which revolves around the four seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter (as opposed to winter, spring, summer, and fall!) begins anew every autumn, as the four Sundays prior to Christmas make up what we call the season of Advent, which is meant to be a time of, as John the Baptist would say, preparing the way for the Lord!

In that spirit of turning our lives and plans towards Christmas, we’ll be exploring a new sermon series centered around the Old Testament prophet Isaiahfor these four Sundays of December.  The series is entitled “How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture,” based on the book of the same name by Bread for the World founder Arthur Simon.  Much like last year’s “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series, we’ll be talking about where God is in the giant production that has become Christmas in the 21st century!  It is a sermon series I have been looking forward to for a long time, and I am very excited to share it with you.  And after Christmas, you won’t want to miss a guest sermon by one of our former senior pastors, Tom Yates, on December 30th!

I’ll See You Sunday,
Pastor Eric

Advent 2012: “How Much is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture”

December 2: “Fat Wallets, Empty Lives,” Isaiah 3:13-15
December 9: “Rushing to Nowhere,” Isaiah 5:18-23
December 16: “Saying “Yes” to Life,” Isaiah 6:1-8
December 23: “The Meek Inherit the Earth,” Isaiah 9:2-7
December 24 (Christmas Eve, 7:00 pm): “In the City of David,” Luke 2:1-20
December 30: Rev. Dr. Tom Yates, guest preaching